RISKING LIVES FOR DEMOCRACY

by Sam Sedaei

Sam Sedaei ’06, Senior Director of Iran Programs at Nonviolence International, provides a unique and close-up view of ongoing events in the Middle East and North Africa—and the implications of those events on other countries, including Iran and the U.S.

Sedaei was born and reared in Iran. At the age of 17, he moved to Chicago. Three years later he matriculated to Kalamazoo College, where he majored in economics and earned a minor in political science and a concentration in public policy. He traveled in Iran during the summer of 2005, conducting a series of interviews that became the basis of his Senior Individualized Project. Based on that work, Sedaei was not surprised when Iranian activists launched the Green Movement in response to the fraudulent Iranian presidential elections in 2009.

In 2007 Sedaei began work at Nonviolence International, an organization that teaches activists in countries with repressive regimes about strategic and tactical civil resistance. Under his direction, the Iran Programs has translated into Farsi the writings of many well-known figures and movements in the field of civil resistance, including Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. In addition to his role at Nonviolence International, Sedaei has also been a longtime contributor to a number of different online publications, including the Huffington Post and PBS’s Tehran Bureau. He has appeared on a number of media outlets and is an occasional political analyst on Farsi Voice of America Television. He was on air when the latter broke the news of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s relinquishment of power.

Sedaei served as executive producer of “Resistance,” the soon-to-be released documentary that explores the parallels between the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ongoing Green Movement. His work during the last four years prompted the Iranian regime to place him on a black list, effectively banning him from his native country. And a recent book published by the regime on the subject of enemies to the regime dedicated a number of pages to Sedaei.

His article draws connections between his “K” education and his current work. He also shares his thoughts on recent and current events in the Middle East and North Africa, the likely changes to which those events may be leading, and the implication of such changes to other countries, including Iran, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S., among others. “I have always taken pride in being a “K” graduate,” said Sedaei, “and believe that my education there was critical in leading me to see myself as a citizen of the world, driven to do not just well, but also good.”

***

Immigration was the most consequential decision in my life. I made that decision at age 16 after my arrest by the religious police in Tehran while on my first real date. Looking at my mother through the glass at Mehrabad airport as she choked back tears was the beginning of the difficult path from Vanak Street in Tehran to 14th street in Washington, DC. The journey was made possible by my experience at Kalamazoo College.

Although I had visited the United States previously, the idea of having to interact with Americans on a daily basis with my limited English seemed terrifying. I also had to grapple with major culture shock that began from my first day at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago. I was attending a coeducational school for the first time, and I watched students go through metal detectors. For a while the difficulties and the feeling of being different from everyone else made me doubt whether I would ever be happy in the United States. The thing that sustained me was what had led me to choose this path: the unwavering belief in freedom and the American dream.

I began my college search my senior year in high school. One morning my counselor pulled me aside: “Saman, have you heard of Kalamazoo College?”
I said that I hadn’t, but was only interested in colleges in America. He laughed and introduced me to “K” Admissions Counselor Andy Stricker, who was visiting my high school that day. 

Now I was more interested in University of Chicago and Northwestern than Kalamazoo, but Andy—and a campus visit a few weeks later—made me feel I was a unique candidate, and I felt sought after and valued for what seemed like the first time in a long time.

Before “K”, I didn’t clearly understand the concept of liberal arts education. I knew I wanted to obtain a business degree and eventually pursue a lucrative career in the private sector. But as I began to fulfill basic requirements from different departments, I learned about issues and topics that interested me in ways I had never imagined. As I took classes in literature, social sciences and humanities, I began to deeply care about a host of new issues.  Dr. Griffin’s “Visions of America” first-year seminar led me to think about diversity, racial equality, and women’s issues. Dr. Latiolais’s “Philosophy of Language” class taught me the power of language. Dr. Dugas’ “U.S. Foreign Policy” class raised my awareness about the history and impact of U.S. policies on countries like Iran. And Dr. Stall’s classes (“Macroeconomics" and "Industrial Organization and Public Policy”) expanded my understanding of how government impacts ordinary people.

During my freshman and sophomore years I came to feel a sense of good fortune for having the opportunity to be educated at a place like “K,” and my desire grew to find ways to use my education to advance the public good. Around this time I decided that, after graduation, I would suspend my personal ambitions and invest three to four years of my life into Iran and the lives of young Iranians who did not have the same opportunities that I had been granted.

I continued my studies in economics, but I also began work for a minor in political science and a concentration in public policy. The summer after my junior year  I began my Senior Individualized Project (SIP), which was focused on the emergence of a strong pro-democratic movement in Iran at a time when foreign policy circles almost exclusively fixated on Iran’s nuclear program.

I traveled to Iran for five weeks to conduct SIP research. When I returned to “K,” I knew I wanted to help Iranians fight more effectively for the values for which I had moved to America and which I considered to be universal. This goal put me on the path to Washington D.C. In 2007 I was hired by Nonviolence International to direct a program to educate Iranians about the history, strategies, and tactics of nonviolent civil resistance. During the last four years we have put together an international network of researchers, academics, and activists. We have translated into Persian a significant amount of materials about nonviolent movements from around the world, conducted research on nonviolent resistance in Iran’s history, and distributed our materials and provided advice to Iranian activists as they launched the most serious challenge to the Iranian theocracy.

This coming August, I will have fulfilled the commitment I made to myself at the end of my sophomore year at “K.” I plan to go to law school, but my commitment to public service will last for as long as I am alive, and this is in no small part due to my experience at Kalamazoo College.

...

Over the past few months, the world has watched in amazement as people throughout the Middle East have risen in tens of millions against decades-old dictatorships. They have demanded freedom, democracy, and accountability from their rulers. As we review these ongoing uprisings in the Middle East, there are important lessons for Americans to learn and conclusions to draw about the future role of the United States on the global stage.

Dictators who have amassed significant power and billions of dollars don’t relinquish power easily, and Mubarak was no exception. When Mubarak left office, I happened to be on the air of the Persian TV Channel of Voice of America (which, despite being illegal, is the most popular TV channel in Iran). The host stopped me to announce that Mubarak had stepped down, and she asked me to comment over the live images of jubilant crowds in Tahrir Square. It was such an honor to become a part of history in that way.  However, I found it very challenging to speak about the success of Egyptians in that critical movement to the people of Iran, who surely were feeling envious as they had so far been unable to bring such fundamental change to their own country.

In fact, although it is important to take hope from the success stories of Egypt and Tunisia, it is important to remember that not all similar popular movements have led to immediate success. In 2009, protesters in Iran had launched a popular movement in support of democracy. However, they
"I began to deeply care about a host of new issues."
faced the iron fist of Seyyed Ali Khamenei, one of the most ruthless strongmen in this century, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The latter has grown to tens of thousands of members and expanded its role in national and international companies, major infrastructural projects, sea ports, airports and smuggling networks of alcohol and drugs within Iran and of arms in Gaza, Southern Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa.

As I write this article the people in other countries are struggling—but have not yet succeeded—to overthrow old dictatorships. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi’s willingness to use violence has led to the NATO and U.S. bombings of his air defense systems and the establishment of a No-Fly zone, but it has still not resulted in his departure. In Syria, Bashar Assad’s regime has opened fire on thousands of protesters. And in Bahrain, the king, with the help of Saudi Arabia, has been engaging in widespread violence and killing of the Shiite population that has risen to demand an end to discrimination.

What should we Americans do? First, we must understand and acknowledge the courage and conviction of the protesters in the Middle East. They are faced with dictators that do not believe in human rights the way we do and often use religion to justify mass violence against their own people.

Secondly, we should reassess our policies toward these countries. In 1953, Cold War fears prompted U.S. participation in a coup that overthrew Iran’s Mohammad Mossadeq and instituted the unpopular regime of the former Shah of Iran. The repression of that regime resulted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution which established an anti-American regime that continues to this day. For the past 10 years the fear of terrorism has been manipulated to suggest a stark (and false) foreign policy choice: either support dictators who suppress human rights, or face Al Qaeda and the terrorists. But the majority of people in the Middle East seek not Islamic terrorism but modern democracy. Indeed, many are risking their lives for it. And their courage should give us pause about abdicating the defense of universal human rights in the name of “political realism.”

This leads to my last, and perhaps most controversial, point:  For decades, the United States and modern democracies have attempted to pay a sort of “intellectual reparation” to former colonies. This reparation too often expresses itself as a deference to religious and cultural values that disregards the impact of those values on human rights and women’s rights.  As a result, we have been too silent on issues like female genital cutting and other repressive practices out of the fear of offending those who practice such actions.

Like many, I was disgusted by evangelical minister Terry Jones’ burning of the Qoran, and I was disgusted by the equally fundamentalist responses around the world, most particularly the violence in Afghanistan that cost the lives of 12 United Nations staff in Mazar-i-Sharif. But I was particularly dismayed that high-ranking U.S. officials condemned the one abhorrent act (Jones’) but were virtually silent on the bloodshed in Afghanistan. For me, this is an example of a selective silence that cannot coexist with people’s desire for democracy and universal rights. It is an example of a “currency” of reparation that comes at too high a cost.

France recently banned the wearing of burqas that cover the face. Regardless of how one feels about the law, the ban demonstrates that even this socially tolerant Western democracy is drawing a line and advocating that certain values, such as human rights and women’s rights, are more important than unconditional respect for religious or cultural values that inhibit those rights.

I lived in Iran for nearly 17 years. What cultural value can justify a system that allows the testimony of a woman in a court of law to count half as much as that of a man? We Americans must be less apologetic about our support for absolute and unconditional respect for universal values of freedom, self-determination, and human rights, even—and I would argue, especially—when these values are contrary to religious teachings.

In the long-run, realism and idealism are not opposing values; they go hand in hand.

Picture 1
Sam at his office at Nonviolence International
Picture 2
Appearing on Persian Voice of America
Picture 3
On air minutes after the fall of Mubarak


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2 RESPONSES TO RISKING LIVES FOR DEMOCRACY
Gary Rogers on May 20, 2011 at 3:52 pm
Very, very impressive article. I only wish I could have convinced my youngest to attend K. At this point he wants to do "well" and the idea of doing "good" has not caught up with him. He will be attending U on M in the fall. Thank you for sharing your unique perspective.
Steve Wilder 1972 on May 28, 2011 at 10:55 pm
This is a fascinating and very impressive article. In fact, considering the fact that English is Sam's second language and he only graduated from K five years ago, it is astonishing what he has already done with his life. As a member of the Baha'i Faith, which has its roots in 19th century Iran and is persecuted there to this day, I especially appreciate his focus on universal human rights.
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